Friday, March 31, 2017

What is Baptism?

What is Baptism?      March 25/26, 2017
Scripture: Romans 6: 1-14

Today we are continuing our What Is? Sermon Series, where we are preparing for Easter by exploring some meaningful words and practices that help deepen our faith and experience of Jesus Christ. Today we’re asking the question, What is baptism?

William Willimon tells a story about receiving a call from an angry father while serving as Dean of the chapel at Duke University. His secretary buzzed him and said that there was a man calling who was terribly upset. Willimon said, “I figured as much.” He asked if it were one of his many, thought-provoking sermons that upset the man. “No,” his secretary said, “we haven’t had any response to your sermons. . . . This man is mad over something you have done to his daughter.” Willimon was puzzled and told his secretary to put him through. The father began by saying, “I hold you personally responsible.” “For what?” he asked. The father replied, “My daughter. We sent her to Duke to get a good education. She is supposed to go to medical school and become a third generation doctor. Now she’s got some fool idea in her head about Haiti, and I hold you responsible.”

Turns out, his daughter was involved in the chapel, various campus causes, and was one of the organizers of a spring Mission trip to Haiti. The father said, “She has good grades and a chance to go to medical this.” “Now what?” Willimon said. The father shouted into the phone, “Don’t act so dumb. Even if you are a preacher, you know very well what. Now she has some fool idea about going to Haiti for three years teaching kids there. None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for you. She likes your sermons and you’ve taken advantage of her at an impressionable age. Now she’s got this fool idea about going to Haiti!”

 At this point, Willimon said he was getting a tad energized himself. So he responded, “Now just a minute. Didn’t you have her baptized?” The father replied, “Well, yes, but...” “— And,” Willimon continued, “didn’t you take her to Sunday School?” The father stammered in reply, “Well, uhh sure we did. But we never intended for it to do any damage.” “Well, there you have it,” Willimon said. “She was messed up before she came to us. Baptized, Sunday-schooled, called. Don’t blame this on me. You’re the one who started it. You should have thought about what you were doing when you had her baptized.”

I first heard that story when we had our oldest daughter baptized. You should’ve thought about what you were doing when you had her baptized. That’s why we’re talking about baptism today. The father’s experience probably is more common that what we think. I’ve talked with lots of folks who don’t remember their baptism. Maybe they were young and didn’t have much of an idea of what was going or why they were baptized. And some were baptized as adults but never clearly understood why. Some never thought baptism was anything beyond getting a little water sprinkled on the head. Maybe you’d place yourself in one of those categories. For those of you have never been baptized, I think you’ll find today’s message meaningful. It might even inspire you to take that step toward baptism. And for those of you who have been baptized, I hope that today’s message will reignite your faith and inspire you to live out your baptismal calling. So let’s think about what we’re doing when we baptize.

In the 5th Century, St. Augustine, one the early church fathers began to describe certain church practices as “sacraments.” Now, if you grew up in certain Christian traditions, you’ll know different tradition recognize a different number of sacraments. For instance, the Catholic Church defines seven church practices as sacraments. In the Methodist Church, we have two: baptism and Holy Communion (which we’ll talk about next week). These practices are important moments in the life of faith, and they each point to the same idea: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. 

Sometimes words simply aren’t enough to express the ways God is moving in our lives. And sometimes we don’t have the right words to fully tell the story, so we have to use other means. That’s the idea of a sacrament. It’s like a picture, which some have said is worth “a thousand words.” In baptism, we use actions that help paint a picture of God’s activity in our lives. We use words to say, “Hey, God is up to something in my life,” and those words are important. But we also use water, and we lay on hands and we surround the newly baptized person in Christian community. And those actions help us tell the story of how, in the father’s words, God is messing with our lives. So what is going on in baptism?

Well, one of the primary images baptism conveys is that of spiritual death. To help explain this, I thought you might be interested to see an ancient baptismal pool. (SHOW PICTURE) In ancient Christianity, baptismal candidates would spend a good deal of time preparing for their day of baptism, because in many ways, baptism was marking a kind of death. Whether it was 40 days or a year, the candidates would enter a season of preparation and on Easter Sunday, they would enter from one side as if they were leaving behind an old way of life. Some would even shed their clothes as a way of saying, “I’m leaving everything behind, because that’s no longer who I am.” And they would descend down the steps, into the water, and the water would cover them like dirt on top of a grave. It was very much a sign act meant to proclaim that a death had taken place, a death of who I once was, a death to the old ways of life that used to consume me.

This act is our way of identifying our lives with the death of Jesus. In Christ’s death we proclaim that the power of sin is broken, that evil and wickedness no longer have mastery over us. Like the ark that carried Noah and his family away from the wickedness of the world or the parting of the Red Sea that made possible new life for Israel, our baptism emphatically proclaims that we have died to who we used to be and God is making us new. One of the ways we give flesh to this is to ask a series of questions at baptism. The first question we ask is this: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin? Baptism is a “no” to wickedness, evil and sin and a “yes” to God’s new life in Christ. So let me ask you. Do you? Do you renounce the wickedness in this world? Do you reject the evil that corrupts, kills and destroys? I can almost hear Bishop Willimon reminding the father, “Did you forget that she died to her old ways?”

A second understanding of baptism is that of the empowerment and filling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If you struggled with the previous set of questions, then I have good news for you. You don’t have to reject evil alone, nor can you! In the account of Jesus’ baptism, we read that the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends upon him, and he is fully equipped to live out God’s call on his life. This also begins his public ministry. When we are baptized, we believe that God fills us with His Spirit, who empowers us to resist evil, to live a new life and take part in building God’s Kingdom. The second question we ask candidates is this: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Here we are committing to not just avoiding evil, but standing against it by God’s grace. And we do that by relying on God’s presence, His Holy Spirit, in our lives. I’m reminded of Edmund Burke’s famous quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is what compels a medical student to go to Haiti. This is why we give of our time and energy to make a difference in our communities. Are you resisting evil? Are you standing with those who are oppressed? Are you crying out with those and for those who experience injustice? Are you building up God’s kingdom or are you building up yours? Again, I can almost hear Bishop Willimon asking the question, “Did you forget that gave God control of your daughter’s life?”

There is one final question we ask at baptism, and it’s this: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord? Our baptism reminds us that we are no longer our own, that we have committed to living out God’s will for our lives, in God’s way and in God’s time. But following Jesus is a difficult calling, which is why baptism locates us in a community of faith. One of the most powerful moments I have as a pastor is take a newly baptized infant and walk her or him through the congregation. And as I do, I remind the congregation that we’re all in this together and we have a God-given responsibility to care and pray and teach one another. I’ll remind the people that together we are a church, and the newly baptized person has become a part of our covenant. As Jesus has loved us, we are called to love this person. And it’s our job, our calling, to be the hands and feet of Christ for that person. At some point in this newly baptized person’s life, he or she will make mistakes, fall into sin, or maybe even begin to question their faith. Or, they might even have a crazy to notion to quit medical school and instead become a missionary in a foreign country. And they need to know that when those moments happen, we’ll be there to love them through. That doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect (I don’t think that will ever happen), nor does it mean we won’t occasionally let each other down, but it does mean that by virtue of our baptisms we have been bound together in a life-giving covenant, and we live out this covenant together, for better or worse as brothers and sisters in Christ. So let me ask you: Have you put your whole trust in Jesus? Are you serving him as your Lord? Do you confess Christ as your Savior? And when you have those moments of doubt and struggle, will you remember that you are part of community that loves you? Again, I can hear Bishop Willimon saying, “Did you forget that baptism makrs a new life with Jesus as the center?” This is what I hope you think about when you remember your baptism.

I wanted to end today by praying together the Covenant Prayer of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. Although this prayer wasn’t written specifically for baptism, it does convey the heart of our baptism theology: death to an old life, a willingness to follow the Spirit of God, and a commitment to living out God’s will. It might have done the father some good to remember the covenant that he and his daughter made at her baptism. And I hope it does us some good as well. Would you pray this with me?

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside by thee.
Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is Worship?

March 18/19, 2017              What is Worship?
Psalm 100, Romans 12: 1

Today we continue our journey to Easter where we will celebrate the life-changing resurrection of Jesus Christ. And along the way we’re exploring some common words and practices in the church that help us better experience God’s presence in our lives. Today we’re looking at the topic of worship.

I was a fairly good athlete in high school. I spent my summers playing baseball and memorizing the statistics on the back of bubble gum cards, and I could name little known facts about the Pittsburgh Pirates. I knew baseball- the game, the rules, the objective, like the back of my hand. But the summer after my sophomore year, our school’s soccer coach (we had just gotten a team for the first time) called me up to ask if I’d try out. I wasn’t playing football that year, so I agreed. And the first time I stepped on to the soccer field, I felt like a spectator watching everybody else go about their business. The only thing I knew about soccer was the main objective: get the ball past the goalie. Everything else felt as if I had been dropped into a foreign country where the other players were speaking a language I did not know. I didn’t know the rules, the positions, or the play calls and felt quite out of place.

It’s dawned on me that some of us might feel that very way about worship. We go to church and watch somebody read out of an old book, then we listen to the preacher say a few words and sing a few songs that may or may not be familiar, and then we go home and do it again, hopefully, the next week. But my hope for you, after today, is that leave with a greater understanding of the meaningfulness of this practice. And so my goal for today- to help you understand what worship is, why it’s significant and what’s supposed to happen because of it.

So one of the first question need to ask is this: What do mean when we say “Worship?”  As you saw from the video, our word worship is taken from an old Anglo-Saxon word that means “worth-ship.” It’s a word meant to declare how much something or someone is worth. In other words, “worth-ship” signifies the respect or reverence due to a particular person. And we see this lived out uniquely in different cultures, whether we’re talking about divinity or humanity. We’ve heard stories and watched movies where the servant kisses the king’s ring, or the younger man bows before speaking to the older man, or the gentleman holds the door for the lady. These are all ways of showing respect, and humbling your self in order to “lift up” the other. I don’t recall when I heard the following example, but somewhere along my journey I was told that when a person would approach the kings or queens of old to be “knighted,” he would take a knee in the presence of royalty and expose the back of the neck, the most vulnerable part of our bodies. It was a deep sign of respect, but also a means of offering one’s life to the service of the king or queen.

When we think about divine worship, we’ve seen people participate in similar actions. Some bow their heads, close their eyes or drop to their knees in prayer. Maybe we’ve even fallen prostrate on the ground. All of these are way of saying to God, “There is no one worthier than you. And the greatest way I can bring attention to that is to humble myself before you and bend my heart to your will.” So let me ask you a question. Is that what you think about when you come to worship? Do you come to humble yourself before God? That’s the primary reason we do this week in and week out. It’s our proclamation that God is worthier than anyone or anything else in our lives.

Now when we worship, we are not just spending an hour or so of our time singing songs and hearing a message, but in the midst of our time we’re also drawn to God’s goodness. A few weeks ago, I came to worship tired and weary after a long day. And to be quite honest, I would’ve been just fine to stay at home, put on some comfy pants and veg out. But then Lauren led us in a song called “What a Beautiful Name It Is,” and I felt my energy increase and the tears began to flow down my face when I remembered the goodness and faithfulness of God. This is the heart of Psalm 100. The writer calls attention to the goodness of God. All of creation is invited to gather for worship with joy and singing, to remember who God is. And how can we not? There is joy that wells up when we remember that no matter how crazy life gets, God still holds all things together. And no matter how messed up I seem to make life, God somehow manages to pick up the pieces and delicately put me back on the road to abundant life.

Worship is important because it asks us to stop and see the work of the God again. If worship isn’t a priority, or we’re simply too busy to stop and pay attention, then we will miss out on God’s creativity and craftsmanship. And we might even miss out on God’s presence. When I traveled to Zimbabwe last summer, I was awestruck by their night sky. With no ambient light, I could see stars and planets and constellations that we could never see in the northern hemisphere. There was a moment when Bob and I just sat in silence for a half hour, taking in the beauty of God’s creation. It was absolutely breathtaking, almost as if we had traveled to a holy place. I found myself thinking about the words of another Psalm, Psalm 8: “When I consider the work of your heavens, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, who am I that you are mindful of me? O God, how majestic is your name.” Worship creates space for us to consider God, to turn our hearts and minds toward him. Worship reminds us that God is good and faithful and everlasting. Do you sometimes forget who God is? Do you sometimes get so bogged down that you forget his goodness and faithfulness? Maybe you need to remember God’s goodness today? Worship gives us space to remember. And when we remember those characteristics, we can’t help but turn to God in praise.

There’s one more point I’d like to make about worship, and this is what makes worship such a significant event: Worship exposes us to God’s radical love. We can sing our hearts out and hear positive sermons, but unless we’ve encountered the radical love of Christ, we haven’t truly worshipped. The ancient Hebrews had a common refrain in their worship that sounded something like this: God’s steadfast love endures forever.” In Hebrew, that phrase is found in one powerful word: hesed. It’s a word that conveys God’s everlasting faithfulness that stands true no matter the difficulty, the challenge or the situation. God’s love endures. Today God’s love endures and lives on through the presence of Jesus, and we recall that love through the work on the cross.

There is no greater testimony of God’s love than the sacrificial death of Jesus. Every time we worship and humble ourselves and remember God’s goodness, we eventually find our way to the cross, where Jesus gave up his life for ours. And worship has fully been experienced when we pour out our words, our songs and our prayers of gratitude. And this is NOT a foreign concept to us. Every year, we take time out of our schedules to thank the men and women who give of their lives so that we can live. On Veterans Day and Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, we shut down our schools, block off streets, stay home from work, throw parties and attend parades and push the pause button on our daily lives to simply remember. We even have slogans like, “We Will Never Forget” because we understand the significance of someone giving up his or her life to someone else. It means something and deserves our recognition.

Every time we worship, we hit the “pause button” and offer our best “thank you” to the One who has given up his life for ours. We stop every week to worship with gratitude the One who as the old creed says, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” And with thanksgiving, we praise the One who overcomes sin and death and makes it possible for us to spend an eternity with him, where there will be no more mourning, or crying, death or pain. And I don’t know about you, but that’s worthy of worship not just once a week, but every day of our lives.

 So after we’ve done all this, what should happen in worship? What should happen when we humble ourselves and offer God our praise and gratitude? We should experience a deeper relationship with Christ. You might hear a sermon that tugs on your heart, or you might not. You might sing a song that moves you to tears, or you might not. That’s not the point of worship. The point of worship is to “offer ourselves” to Christ. Sometimes we miss that. Sometimes we get caught thinking that worship is about God doing something for us, but it’s actually the other way around. Paul puts it this way in Romans 12: 1- “In view of God’s mercy offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”  But here’s the thing: When you do this, God can’t help but move toward you in life-giving ways. That’s just his nature. A few years ago, I spent the day with Reagan. We played and giggled and laughed and she had my attention and I had hers. When I put her to bed that night, she looked up and said, “Thank you for playing with me daddy.” And when she said those words, I wanted to hold her tight and tell her how much I loved her and always would. And I couldn’t wait to do it all over again, to give her my full attention on another day. That, I think, is what happens when we worship well. It’s when you get up off your knees, say your final amen and head home for the evening knowing that you’ve just spent time with the most important person in the world, and He’s spent time with you. And more than anything, God can’t wait for it to happen again. That is worship. Amen.   

Monday, March 13, 2017

What is Grace?

What is Grace?           March 11th/12th
Ephesians 2: 1-10

            Today our journey to Easter continues, as we prepare our lives for the beautiful celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is a world-changing, eternity-changing moment that has the power to transform lives. As part of our journey, we’re taking the time to step back and look at some meaningful words and practices that help us experience the fullness of God. Today we’re asking the question, “What is grace?”

 You’ve probably heard the word grace before. Maybe it’s what you call the prayer you pray when you gather for meal times. Or maybe it’s the term you give a person who seems to glide through activities without missing a beat or taking a wrong step. But when it comes to faith, grace might be the most important word we ever learn. I would go so far to say that if one word should be etched into our hearts, or tattooed on your arm if you like tattoos, it would be grace. You wouldn’t be here without grace.

I’ve heard it said before, and I’ve probably even said it, that grace can be defined as God’s love for us, a love that we don’t deserve. And I really appreciate that, but I don’t think this definition captures the boldness and the chutzpa of its meaning. And I’m not really sure any definition could do justice to the word. Maybe pictures and stories are better. Watch this video.

Tell the story of Jim Cymbala, found this “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire.”

Grace is probably the most beautiful word we have in our faith, and I think that’s why we latch on to it. But here’s the thing: grace is also a scandalous word. There’s nothing sanitary about grace. My wife recently shared with me an article about what it really means to be a Christian, and I was drawn to it because of the title- F Bombs and Bikinis. How can you ignore a story that begins with that title? The author had this to say: “You can’t sanitize grace. You can’t stuff it into a blue blazer and make it wear khakis. Grace is often messy and offensive.” Why is it messy and offensive? Because grace will show up in all the places we wouldn’t think to go and visit with all the people we wouldn’t think to visit. Jesus, the God of Grace, often finds us where we are, and sometimes we’re in pretty low places, aren’t we? Sometimes we’re in pretty bad places, so bad that we’ve convinced ourselves and even others that we are beyond God’s desire to chase us down and find us. But that’s the scandal of grace. Grace is God’s willingness to say, “I don’t care who you are, but I’ coming to find you. I don’t care what you’ve done, who you are or where you’ve been, ” I love you and want to have a relationship with you.

Just let that sink in for a moment. “I love you and want to have a relationship with you.” That’s the ultimate goal of grace. This love that you and I don’t deserve is given to us so we can find ourselves back home with God. To be reconciled to a God we thought could never love us because of that junk in our lives? That’s grace. To be made whole when we are so broken? That’s grace. To be found when we feel so lost? That’s grace. To be dead in our horrible choices, but to discover the existence a Savior named Jesus who is willing to die so that we can have life? And he’s knocking at the door long before we took notice? That’s grace.

In our tradition, there are three ways we often talk about grace. They aren’t different graces, but rather they are ways that help us see the work of God in our lives. The first way we talk about grace is called Prevenient Grace. That’s an old word that conveys this idea of something that paves the way, preparing the heart for response. Prevenient grace is our way of acknowledging that God has been at work in our lives long before we took notice (and still is!), but that work allows us to see the light for the first time. Romans 5:8 speaks to this: “But God proves his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. God took a step towards you before you took a step towards God.

One way to think about this is to look back at the people and the moments that shaped the direction of your lives. I know you’ve had those moments when you say, “I think God was preparing me for this or getting me ready for that. Pastor Rob is one such person for me. I was a struggling college student living life the way I wanted and out of the blue my pastor called me up and asked if I’d go to Chicago with him for a conference. It just so happened that he was beginning to sense God’s plan for my life, even though I wasn’t ready to hear the same thing. God was beginning to work in me through Pastor Rob, but I didn’t fully recognize this until a few years later. That’s prevenient grace.

A second way we talk about grace is Justifying Grace, which is a realignment of our lives with God. James Harnish (A Disciple’s Path), a fellow pastor, uses the example of the justification icon on a Word document. When you justify your typing, the text is spread evenly throughout the page, and finds itself in perfect, right relationship with the margins. We need this grace because we get out of sync with God. Because of our sin, our relationship with God gets all out of whack and needs to be realigned. And God re-aligns us, or “justifies” us through the work of Jesus on the cross. We are made right with God because of Jesus. We can’t make ourselves right with God; only Jesus can do that for us. Jesus selflessly offers his own life (perfect and without sin) on behalf of our lives and, as Harnish writes, “The almost unbelievable good news tis that God, in an act of unearned, extravagant grace, meets us in the middle of the mess we’ve made, and by the self-giving love of Jesus on the cross, restores us to right relationship with himself.” When we receive this justifying grace, we call it conversion. We’ve been converted, or turned in a new direction with Jesus as our center. That’s the grace of God. “For it is by grace you have been saved,” says Paul. “Not by your works. Not by your good deeds, but by grace.” And that’s only the beginning.

The final way we talk about grace is Sanctifying Grace. Sanctifying grace is God’s way of saying, “I’m not going to leave you alone until you are wholly mine and perfect in love.” Remember the greatest commandment and the goal of holiness we discussed last week? To love God with everything and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s what we call “perfect love.” And God is going to relentlessly work in our lives, every day, so that we learn to love the way He loves. Sanctifying grace is also important because it reminds us that God is never done with us, nor is he done with others. It’s frustrating at times to see a lack of change in people, isn’t it? And I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, “And I thought you were a Christian? Well, the truth is that we’re all on a journey and this journey will take a lifetime to become who God wants us to become. And there will be days when we fire on all spiritual cylinders and days where we look very little like the Christ who lives and reigns within us. It’s not an excuse for the way we live at times, but it is a good reminder that God’s grace often takes time to shape us and remake us. Conversion begins your journey with Christ; but it’s the sanctifying grace of God that messes with you every day so that you can live and love like Jesus. And who wouldn’t want that?

All of this is to say that grace needs to be the window through which we view life. I often hear people say they’ve found Jesus. But you know what? Jesus was never lost. It’s we who have been found and discovered by him! We could say that every person we bump into is the object of God’s grace, whether they know it or not. We are people (You, Me, Them) for whom God is searching, eager to find us so that we will follow. And when that light bulb goes on, it’s only by God’s grace.

I don’t think I can end this sermon with a quick mention of Amazing Grace. You know the song, but you might not know the story behind it. John Newton was an Anglican priest who became famous for several hymns he penned, but his life didn’t begin as a priest. As a teenager, Newton took the seas with his father, and spent the next decade of his life as a sailor, first with the Naval Service, then as an African slave trader. And he was brutal. Long forgetting the faith his mother taught him, Newton gained a wild and rebellious reputation. He was, in his own terms, “wretched,” and his life led to the suffering and disbelief of others. Yet one day, God began to wrestle with Newton’s heart. And little by little, John Newton recognized that God was delivering him out of deep trouble. Later in his life, once he put away his sailing days, Newton sat down and penned a song that told the story of his life- and ours: Amazing Grace. Later, after considering the horrible life he had lived and reflecting on God’s unexplainable love, John Newton came to the following (and the only) conclusion: “I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I want to be. I am not what I hope to be. But still, I am not what I used to be. And by the grace of God, I am what I am.” Friends, by the grace of God you are NOT who used to be and you are NOT who you one day will be. But you ARE God’s, and by his grace, day in and day out, he is making you like him in love and goodness. Amen.